Borges Month: El Aleph 1949
July 12, 2010 § 1 Comment
In 1949, Jorge Luis Borges released his second solo, all-fiction collection, El Aleph. Unlike the earlier Ficciones, which contained fictions in a variety of genres, Borges notes in the introduction that virtually all of the stories in El Aleph would best be classified as being fantasies. There is much truth to this, as the stories within are stranger and less connected with the everyday mundane world than any of his previous fictions.
If I were pressed to choose a favorite Borges fiction collection, El Aleph would be in contention, along with Ficciones and El Hacedor. There is much that I enjoyed about this collection: the sense of temporal disconnect in a couple of stories, the meditations on eternity, and the vague, creeping sense of horror that underlies some of these fictions. Although there are a few stories that didn’t appeal to me as much, the proportion of stories that I did enjoy quite a bit was very high. Since this is going to be a very brief review, I just want to focus on a couple of stories.
“The Immortal,” the opening story, is perhaps one of my three favorite Borges stories (the others being “The South” and “Dreamtigers”). It is at first a mystery surrounding an antiquarian that then branches off into a tale lasting close to two thousand years. It is, perhaps, also a metaphor on literature and how poetry in particular can bestow a sort of quasi-immortality on those portrayed within. In addition, there is a scene which I consider to be excellent in how it portrays a sense of grandeur and madness within an enigmatic structure:
Este palacio es fábrica de los dioses, pensé primeramente. Exploré los inhabitados recintos y corregí: Los dioses que lo edificaron han muerto. Noté sus peculiaridades y dije: Los dioses que lo edificaron estaban locos. Lo djie, bien lo sé, con una incomprensible reprobación que era casi un remordimiento, con más horror intelectual que miedo sensible.
This palace is divinely built, I thought at first. I explored the uninhabited spaces and I corrected myself: The gods that built it have died. I noted its peculiarities and said: The gods that built it were crazy. I said this, I know, with an incomprensible reprobation that was almost a regret, with more intellectual horror than sensible fear.
In just four sentences Borges manages to convey not just what the narrator beheld, but also the degree of alien difference and weirdness that the narrator felt at beholding such an awe-inspiring structure. It was at this point that the story really began to pull me in, as Borges reveals not just what was contained within, but also the meaning behind those who were outside it. No matter how many times I re-read it, this story still appeals to me.
Other stories that I enjoyed include “Los teólogos,” “La otra muerte,” “El Zahir,” and “El Aleph.” In each of these tales, Borges displays a great talent for taking erudite observations and vast knowledge of literary and metaphysical conventions, as he distills the main essences of the topics he covers into deceptively simple sentences that convey much with an economic use of words. It is this ability of his to summarize things such as beliefs in immortality, in gnostic knowledge, and in the relationships between words and meanings within short stories that rarely are more than 20 pages long that makes these stories a joy to read. It is as though I were reading the summation of a very profound story, only to discover that the summation was an illusion and that what I had considered while I read was the story, or at least the foundation of ur-stories. This reaction, which never diminishes whenever I re-read this collection, is why I keep coming back and re-reading these fictions over and over again.